REDUCING INTERIOR LANDSCAPE MAINTENANCE COSTS

Through Effective Design and Installation Practices

by Joelle Steele

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Every client would like to pay less and get more. Keeping maintenance costs down to meet the demands of the "thrifty" client of the 1990s means learning how to address their budgetary requirements during the most important aspect of interiorscape, the design phase, and following up on solid design techniques with the appropriate installation practices and procedures.

IT STARTS WITH DESIGN

Design sets the stage for everything that follows in an interiorscape project. When a design is poor or inadequate, there are bound to be problems in plant selection and installation which can have far-reaching affects on long-term maintenance service and its accompanying costs. Many of those costs are passed on to the client in the form of inflated monthly fees that are necessary to accommodate the additional care necessary for plants placed in inappropriate environmental conditions. These "bad" design techniques also lead, inevitably, to employee dissatisfaction, with a corresponding rise in internal maintenance costs, as technicians struggle to keep ficus trees alive in 25fc while aglaonemas fry in a hot window. Interiorscapers can take preventive measures to insure that their projects address the budgetary restrictions of their clientele.

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Horticultural Skills. The first step is to ensure that the interiorscape designer is a qualified horticultural designer, not just a salesperson with minimal design and horticultural skills. A skilled designer can save an interiorscape company money and create an installation designed for longevity. If necessary, a salesperson can always sell a design and then bring in a designer to determine installation and maintenance budgets. The added benefit to selling a design is that the client benefits by getting what they really want at a price they can afford, and the interiorscape contractor gets paid for the hours spent in preparing proposals, (which are nothing more than written designs anyway), checking availability, running back and forth to the job site, etc.

Communication. The next step involves communication. Meetings with clients are often one-sided with the interiorscaper doing all the talking about how great their company is and what they are going to do for the client. The client frequently listens and then sends the interiorscaper off to look at the site and make notes. This kind of communication leaves the interiorscaper without the information necessary to create an appropriate design specific to the client's needs because the interiorscaper has not done enough research to determine those needs in the first place. Making assumptions about what a client appears to need or want, or casually mentions that they like, is not a sufficient foundation on which to base a design or proposal. Client meetings should be treated like fact-finding missions. A salesperson and/or designer should ask lots of questions and be sure to find out exactly what the client likes, wants, and, perhaps most importantly, can afford. Yet another benefit to selling a design is the opportunity it affords to discuss dollars and cents in a professional and appropriate manner.

KNOW THE JOB SITE

Knowing the job site comes next. Many interiorscapers walk the prospective job site without really documenting it fully enough to determine the extent to which it is suitable for plants. It is not enough to know where the water is. It is important to know what is in it. Tap water may be hard, soft, fluorinated, chlorinated, or treated with any number of seemingly harmless additives that can cause foliar or other structural damage to the plant or even to the containers.

Lighting. Lighting is another item which is often treated very casually. If an interiorscaper visits the site at 9 a.m. and designs for the natural light as it is at 9 a.m., he or she may be in for a big surprise when the brightly lit area turns dark at 10:15 a.m. as the sun goes around the corner and lights the other half of the building for the rest of the day. A second visit is always in order to view the site at different times of day. No guesswork or projections about what the light will be like are acceptable, especially not with all the different window coatings being used these days.

Artificial light should not be taken for granted either. Fluorescent lights vary, some more appropriate to maintenance growth, (when old leaves die and are replaced by new ones), than others. Another item to consider with artificial lighting is whether it is supplemental to the natural or reflected light. This is particularly important in offices where workers are gone for long periods of time, leaving their lights turned off, (and their drapes drawn, of course!). Many experts have devoted countless pages to the selection of appropriate plant lighting, as did George Manaker in his almost 50-page chapter on light (see "Interior Plantscapes: Installation, Maintenance, & Management," Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, NJ). Learn to rely on a light meter. Buy a good one and don't leave home without it!

Temperature. Another often overlooked consideration in design is temperature. It is easy to assume that an office building with sophisticated air and heating controls will have unvarying temperatures year-round. But, humans control these devices, and when they arrive at their desks from freezing outdoor weather, they are more than just tempted to raise the thermostat — they crank it up to 80F degrees where it stays until someone realizes that it is uncomfortably warm and turns it all the way down to 50F degrees! The reverse happens in warm weather. The plants are not usually consulted about how they feel with all of this up-and-down movement of room temperature. For many plants it is not that stressful, but consider those plants that are in an already warm window for part of the day or those which are already in a cool, dimly lit room. Those are the ones which will suffer the most — and show it.

Traffic. Another item to evaluate is space utilization and foot traffic. In large shopping malls there is usually a "farmers market" or food court where adults and children alike mangle the leaves, dump their soft drinks in the soil, and use any available plant as a rubbish bin or ashtray. In offices and homes, these heavily trafficked areas are not always as easily defined and the designer needs to be very observant when walking the site or examining a floorplan. Placing a sprawling kentia near an entryway may seem like an obvious mistake to many, but kentias show up at doorways anyway, usually with battered leaves waving at everyone that walks by. The right plant in the right place is dictated to a large extent by space utilization and this aspect of design should be given careful consideration.

SPECIFYING PLANTS

When it comes to specifying plants, designers often want to see the finest specimens gracing the interiors of their newest account. However, eighteen and twenty foot ficus trees in an atrium may be feasible from a maintenance position but not from an installation standpoint. For example, an interiorscape contractor wanted to install nine such plants in a shopping mall that was re-vamping its interior. The trees were delivered to the job site where it was discovered that they would not fit through a single door of the building. The canopies were too broad and the boxes too wide. A building contractor had to remove a set of four glass doors in order for the plants to be moved inside. The total cost was $2,200 which the interiorscape company was unable to pass on to the client, (for obvious reasons). Similar problems have occurred in countless malls across North America as interiorscapers continue to attempt to install the uninstallable!

Root of the Problem. Two interiorscape practices that drive the cost of maintenance sky high are those of buying and installing rootbound plants, and installing plants without leaching excess salts. The lifespan of a plant that is not properly prepared prior to installation is cut short, often by as much as one-half. The plant is already going into an artificial environment and interiorscapers would do well to make preparation a higher priority to give the plants they care for a fighting chance. Cleaning the leaves of a new plant is not adequate preparation for months and years on the job site.

When a plant is rootbound it is preferable to pot it up a size. If an interiorscaper frequently buy plants from a grower or distributor who specializes in plants with roots growing out of the drainage holes, this means adjusting the container specifications for all designs to accommodate larger grower pots. Leaching should be done as a matter of course, but plants should not be installed immediately afterward. They should be allowed to dry out a little, particularly if they are going into dimly lit spaces or cool rooms. These practices will help prevent stress, can shorten maintenance visits, and will reduce the frequency of replacements.

Know the Grower. When it comes to making plant purchases, interiorscapers should make every effort possible to buy only from reputable growers and never buy plants that do not appear entirely healthy on the pretext that they will recover and thrive in some well-lit area for which they have been specified. All plants should be carefully examined for signs of diseases, viral conditions, and pests. The soil and roots should be studied and healthy new growth should be in evidence.

Transporting Plants. Even when plants have been carefully selected, they can still be damaged in transit. Sometimes an otherwise healthy plant has its roots torn, (very hard on hair roots), stems and leaves ripped, (an invitation to disease), or has suffered extreme heat or cold, (often not apparent until the first maintenance visit). These types of damage can be prevented by careful handling while transporting from the grower, to the holding site or greenhouse, and, finally, to the job site, and can be further avoided by exercising the same care during preparation and installation.

SUMMARY

By carefully keeping in mind all of these aspects of the design and installation process, interiorscapers can gain a tighter cost control over their own maintenance departments which will in turn allow them to offer more affordable services to their budget-conscious clientele.

This article last updated: 05/28/2012.